HOLST: Walt Whitman -- Overture, op. 7. Symphony in F, op. 8 "The Cotswolds." A Winter Idyll. Japanese Suite, op. 33. Indra -- Symphonic Poem, op. 13.
Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta.
Naxos 8.572914 TT: 65:55.
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A bargain. On his path to artistic maturity, Holst put much of his trust in thorough preparation. He remarked to his friend Vaughan Williams that they ought to be writing the pieces today which would help them in the future. Vaughan Williams, who never really feared failure and who quite liked taking as many risks in his work as he wanted, disagreed. Furthermore, despite his commitment to methodical progress, Holst's own artistic growth in fact suddenly sprouted in spurts rather than gradually grew, and moved in unpredictable directions, besides. It took him about ten years to find himself and start writing the work we hear as characteristic, a modest amount of time as these things go.

He spent much of that period sorting out the jumble in his mind. A list of his early works reveals an artist trying to move in several directions at once, pulled in the directions of Wagner, Bach, Eastern religions, medieval and ballad poetry, libertarian socialism (anti-authoritarian, means of production held in common, respect for personal property), and literary "moderns" like Hardy and Robert Bridges. In most of the works here, pre-Planets, Wagner dominates musically. However, Holst had not only the advantage of Charles Stanford's teaching but of practical experience as an orchestral trombonist. Stanford drilled technique into his students and insisted they hear what they wrote. Most of them undoubtedly became as a group the most adept young composers in England, the rising generation, in fact. As a professional orchestral trombonist, between all those measures of "laying out," Holst could contemplate the instrumental effects he heard from the inside, as it were. This resulted in a remarkable flair for the orchestra, clear and still sounding, even during the time Holst remained Stanford's student.

We see this in the remarkably assured A Winter Idyll, written while still in school. The orchestration stands out as more than capable, although not as wizard-like as it became later on. With this work, Holst shows that he knows the late-Romantic orchestra very well. The music rings with echoes of early Wagner -- say, around Flying Dutchman, although Holst moves more lightly and without Wagner's potato-stew scoring -- as well as a composer like Sullivan. Perhaps Holst was trying to find a way to assert Englishness. However, Holst impresses -- as a student -- with a seamless piece nine minutes long based on mainly two ideas solidly worked out. Most English composers at the time would have taken pride in such a score, had they written it.

On many British socialist and liberal reading lists around the turn of the century, you would have found both Walt Whitman and John Bunyan. Bunyan supplied the moral fervor of progressives, Whitman the poetic. In addition to the overture, Holst wrote the ambitious Whitman cantata The Mystic Trumpeter and Dirge for Two Veterans, as well as an austere setting for brass and men's voices of the Ode to Death, although he seemed to drop Whitman as a source of inspiration later on. Holst's overture rises to capable and, unlike A Winter Idyll, nothing more. Many minor British composers could have written this, although the orchestral writing, particularly for the brass, is stunning. Wagner takes a stronger hand, this time the music deriving from Meistersinger.

Composers seldom progress from strength to strength. They don't "ring the bell" every time, one reason why Holst shouldn't have expected his conscious plans to work out. The Cotswold Symphony shows Holst trying to break the confines of the single-movement concert piece toward a bigger statement. A year out of the Royal College of Music (1899), the mental jungle in his mind has thickened. What it means to be a specifically English composer stirs in his mind. No surprise, but he takes from the models out there, but not necessarily the best models. The first movement is twee Olde English such as you would expect in Edward German or Sullivan's Yeoman of the Guard, but without Sullivan's genius. There's nothing wrong with it if part of, say, a suite of incidental music like German's Henry VIII Dances, but it hasn’t the weight of an opening symphonic movement. In the scherzo and the finale, Holst begins to wave bye-bye to Wagner, and the seeds of his mature idiom begin to germinate. The scherzo is noteworthy for here and there a piquancy of scoring that blossoms in The Planets' (Mercury), while in the finale, although marred by an abrupt end, a folkish lilt tinges the themes.

Again, in a symphony, those three movements amount to small beer. However, the slow movement, "Elegy (In memoriam William Morris)," blows off the foam. It may constitute Holst's best work of his early period, and indeed people have played and recorded it as a separate piece. It shows us why Vaughan Williams thought Holst worth watching, other than friendship. Traces of Wagner remain, but they're not blatant. Don't expect Siegfried's funeral march. It's more a matter of relying on sequences (the same idea repeated higher or lower) to build length, and even then Holst doesn't resort to this technique all the time, and certainly not to Wagner's extent. British socialist secular saint Morris died in 1896, politically a scandalous figure among those who thought of him as a "respectable" craftsman and poet. Among other things, he was for a time allied with Friedrich Engels and Marx's daughter Eleanor. The score doesn't celebrate some mythic hero, but a very good man. It runs nine minutes, which Holst shapes beautifully. The awkwardness and small sights of the other movements are nowhere in hearing.

The tone poem Indra shows again that artists seldom progress steadily to their summit. Holst again flexes his muscles, trying to break out of a compositional rut. There's genuine ambition here. At this point, Holst has succumbed to the fascination of the Hindu Vedas. They may very well have given him the opportunity to find himself artistically. He even tried to learn Sanskrit, although he never mastered it. Nevertheless, this results in the beginnings of work characteristic of his maturity: the series Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, the chamber opera masterpiece Savitri, as well as a taste for the exotic and esoteric like Beni Mora, the Japanese Suite, The Hymn of Jesus, and even The Planets. The score depicts the slaying of the serpent demon Vritra by the hero-god Indra. Fortunately, you really don't need to know the plot to listen to the music. Once more, the orchestration constitutes the most the most impressive part of the piece, with The Planets, over a decade away, struggling to break out. Holst has definitely left his late Nineteenth-Century style behind and looks for something else. We see signs of breakthrough "fingerprints," notably a fondness for bass ostinato and the beginnings of a modally-inflected musical language. Curiously, Holst becomes most interesting here when he's really setting up a section, in the midst of a prelude, functionally marking time, rather than for the thematic section itself. The very opening constitutes a strong example of this, with off-kilter brass fanfares (again, killer brass writing) against a background that practically vibrates. You can hear little musical seeds that will later blossom into "Jupiter" and The Perfect Fool ballet music.

By 1914, Holst had already fully matured. In that year, a Japanese dancer, influenced by the American poet Ezra Pound to perform in London something based on a Noh play, asked Holst for music. Holst interrupted work on The Planets and obliged the dancer with the Japanese Suite, a ten-minute gem. All the hesitations and artistic fat of the previous works on this program have gone. Instead, Holst gives us an individual voice, different than although contemporary with that of The Planets -- terse and incisive. You could cut yourself on the orchestration alone, genuinely brilliant and poetic at the same time. At the same time, Holst avoids the clichés of "oriental" music, evoking Asia in a completely individual way, as Britten did much later in Curlew River. Ostinati and themes with a strong ostinato component take up a good chunk of the score. As early as the 2 Carols and Beni Mora's "In the Street of the Ouled Näils" (both 1908) the hypnotic effect of continuous straight repetition fascinated Holst, going against the then-conventional grain of organic variation. Of course, Holst keeps only one element constant and varies the rest, but the music can still convey at some times meditation or at others obsession. The Japanese Suite goes from dreamy to ritualistic to delicate to a wrathful finale ("Dance of the Wolves"), and the rougher sections may remind you a bit of "King Kashchei's Infernal Dance," although I have no idea whether Holst had actually heard Stravinsky's 1910 Firebird by this time. Apparently, the two composers find themselves in the same psychic neighborhood. Stravinsky's language differs so much from Holst's that I don't believe you can claim anything like a steal or even an echo. Happily, Naxos has brought this masterpiece, previously available mainly on full-price, hard-to-find labels, to wider notice.

Holst collectors cherish the recordings of Imogen Holst, the composer's daughter and a miraculous musician, who devoted herself to keeping Gustav's music before notice. Each is a classic. Unfortunately, most of them came out on the Argo label, which cut them. Decca/London/EMI have reissued some of it. Lyrita's Holst series also produced many fine recordings with Sir Adrian Boult, David Atherton, Nicholas Braithwaite, and again Imogen Holst. I believe you can get all the works here from those sets. But why? Falletta does a beautiful job, if not a legendary one, and all for the price of a Naxos disc. She definitively swats Douglas Bostock's similar CD out of competition. Indeed, she outshines Atherton in the Morris Elegy. The Ulsterfolk respond flexibly and sensitively to whatever she does and the sound holds up.


S.G.S. (May 2014)